Monday, June 10, 2013

Grammar Manners: The Semicolon

Since we all love Mondays and we all love Grammar and the minutes of writing, Mondays are hereafter dedicated to things we'd rather leave in the dark. Might as well start the week with a kick in the pants. I'll bring to you common mistakes I think writers should just know. Tips will range from first-grade knowledge of the English language to Master's Degree expertise.

(I do find Melville references hilarious!)
I make it no secret that Herman Melville and I don't have a good relationship (sorry Ishmael!), and you know this won't be the first or last time I make an example of him. Among other things we learn not to do from past works of art (though I would like to see a modern reprisal of the whale semen scene...), the misuse of semicolons is one of them.

Every writer, editor, and reader has their favorite punctuation and mine has always been the semicolon. It's simple, straight-forward, and has rules you cannot break. Yet, time and time again, I correct flyers, Facebook posts, and, yes, manuscripts too. I think having to read Melville in school will do that to a brain, make you think you need to use way more than is good for you. But I'm here to tell you: when in doubt, leave them out.

Semicolons have two uses. Use them only under these two circumstances:
  1. Connect two independent clauses of related thoughts or,
  2. Separate items in a complicated list.
That's it.

Of course, the explanations:
  1.  The key here is "independent clauses". When using a semicolon, you must have a sentence that can stand on its own on each side of the punctuation. "I found him super attractive; the once-a-month wolf thing is a major turn on for me."
  2. A complicated list can contain multiple items that need a comma: "My vacation bag contained the following: sunscreen; a big, pointed stake; cloves of garlic; a blue, shimmery, wolf-repellent cape." Or, a complicated list can be one containing dates: "June 4th, 1492; April 2nd, 1998; December 6th, 1649."
If you need a more complete guide on semi-colon use, I love the instructions at The Oatmeal.

Of course, there are a few other reasons to use one...
Happy writing!


Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the grammar tips. I don't use semicolons much, but it's good to know when they can be used.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I don't always use semicolons. But when I do, it's for one of these two reasons.

R. A. Meenan said...

I love that you posted that link to The Oatmeal. I have his semicolon poster in my classroom. XD

Alas, Melville was one of those unlucky writers who were brought up in an era where Latin was considered a "god-language" and writers attempted to copy its structure and grammar, never bothering to think that maybe, just maybe, English makes no sense when writing with Latin grammar. The misuse of the semicolon was one of those unfortunate casualties.

Excellent post.

The Chimping Dandy said...

As Natalie said, thanks for the solid rules... I write my Fiction stuff with MS Word and it suggests that I use semicolons all the time, I surely can't have that many 'independent clauses' in one piece?

It seems to put that annoying, green squiggle whenever I pause too long between writing a couple of sentences, If I use the words octopus and hatstand in the same paragraph or when I'm describing colours by how they taste.

Maybe I'm just too metaphysical for Microsoft...